Death and the Library
By Seth GreenlandApril 19, 2012
I HELD MY FATHER'S COPY of Mein Kampf in my hand wondering if it should be kept, donated, or set on fire in the backyard. Will the day arrive when I actually attempt to hack my way through Hitler's turgid opus? Or did I want to see the look in the eye of the clerk at the donation center when she laid eyes on that noxious title? And what was Leo Greenland, husband, father, grandfather, successful advertising executive and supporter of multiple charities — some of them Jewish — doing with a copy of Mein Kampf anyway? Bequeath, retain or incinerate: Our choices.
We were breaking down Dad's library. He had passed away six months earlier at the grand age of 91, and my wife Susan and I had flown east to meet my brother Drew and close down the house on four wooded acres overlooking a quiet lake an hour north of New York City. To get there you drove past an overgrown cemetery with faded gravestones that dated from the early nineteenth century and turned right onto a rutted driveway on a small incline, flanked by two rows of tall pines. The house was not architecturally distinguished. A two-story, wood-sided, boxy structure, it was around forty years old. My parents had owned it for twenty-eight of those years. The bedrooms were easy to pack up; the living room and the den done on autopilot. It would have been easy enough to turn the kitchen into an emotional minefield. There were the beautifully painted dishes my mother, dead 20 years now, had shipped from Spain, the ones on which she prepared her signature fish with feta cheese and tomatoes. The carving knife my father had wielded so many Thanksgivings or the stained wood tray I had made in elementary school could easily have sent me tumbling down a Proustian rabbit hole, unable to emerge for hours. These objects resonated, but their emotional power paled compared to that exerted by the books.
In a house of readers, what, more than books, allows access to the inner lives of its occupants? When a person you love has recently died, there is often an urge to keep them close in some tangible way. And so with dusty fingers we work our way through libraries of the dead and read their biographies, see their lives written in volumes about other subjects.
Born in the South Bronx to uneducated immigrant parents, Leo Greenland was an autodidact (a word he never would have used) whose lifelong search for knowledge and meaning led him on a journey that began with countless books about marketing and took him from there to the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle and Plato. In between, he accumulated a veritable Waldorf salad of titles. There were over a thousand. You can't keep them all.
Bequeath, retain or incinerate. I vowed to exorcise sentiment, sort rigorously, keep it moving.
The library is on the second floor of the house, overlooking the frozen lake. No other houses are visible, only ice and bare trees against white sky. The view is appropriately Chekhovian. When packing your dead father's books on a silent January day, gray winter light flooding in, thoughts of eternity wrestle with the anodyne task at hand. An old bestseller easily drops into the donation pile, but then I am brought up short by a high school yearbook from 1938 and open it to the picture of my father as an eighteen year old, his entire life about to unfold, nothing more than a glint in his brown eyes. I decide to keep a beautifully bound edition of Treasure Island, a book I haven't read since the fourth grade, perhaps because I might read it again, but, if I'm being honest, more because it helps me remember that I was once nine years old and lived with parents who gave me books like that and A Catcher In The Rye and Huckleberry Finn and to whom I owe the deepest gratitude.
Each moment, I am feeling more like Madame Ranevsky.
There were histories and biographies, art books, novels, the slew of titles about marketing, books about golf, classics from antiquity, the entire oeuvre of Ogden Nash, leather-bound volumes both antiquarian and recent, all of them revelatory in one way or another. There were books my brother and I had given as gifts and we open them to read the inscriptions: "I know if a book has the word 'Jews' or 'Israel' in the title, you will like it. I hope I'm right this time. Love, Seth." In the Alec Guinness memoir A Blessing In Disguise, I had written "To Mom, A blessing undisguised." And of course I had to stop and stare out the window while I collected myself and thought about all the childhood hours my mother had read to me, a book open on her lap, me lying in bed and listening as I struggled not to fall asleep.
Turning back to the shelves I picked up a volume of Remembrance of Things Past — the Proustian rabbit hole itself! — inscribed in 1938 by my now ninety-year-old Aunt Claire to my grandfather, a four-times married, pathological narcissist from Poland who cut a swathe through the ladies of the Bronx. It is difficult to imagine him having had time for Proust, but it makes me think of my Aunt at 16, her poignant hope that her perpetual disappointment of a father might somehow be interested in this book. And then there was this depth charge: an edition of Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne, copyright 1927, and inscribed as follows: "To my belove [sic] son Leo. Father." My grandfather abandoned the family later that year. If my father could be said to have had a primal wound, this was it. To touch the book, a frayed, orange hardback with faded gold lettering, is to hear once again the painful stories he told me about his father, the serial remarriages, the emotional abuse, the years-long estrangement.
Although my parents were not bibliophiles per se, every house they occupied had a floor to ceiling wall of books. The first time I ever saw a swastika it glowered at me from Dad's copy of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, shelved near his edition of Mein Kampf, cheek-by-jowl with Deborah Lipstadt's The War On The Jews. When Dad was interested in a subject, he liked to examine it from all angles. I had helped myself to the Shirer years earlier. As for the worthy Lipstadt, it landed in the donation pile.
There was a collection of classics that included Lucretius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I have no idea if he read these particular editions, but their contents were manifest in his behavior. He was both an epicurean and someone who tried to see things with the unsurpassed clarity of the stoics. The myriad art books were a testament to his uxorious nature. My mother was the art lover and they were purchased for her: eclectic volumes of Penn photographs, of Wyeth, Grandma Moses, El Greco, Monet, and Horst. As we sorted, all the museum visits came flooding back, my mother's endless quest to make us interested in things besides baseball cards or digging holes in the backyard. Several volumes went into the box I was shipping to California.
Three of my Sunday school textbooks had been saved, books I had not laid eyes on in over 40 years. One of them contained the following self-penned inscription: "In case of fire, burn this first." I can't imagine either of my parents ever saw it. Their silence in such an event would have been unimaginable. The strange feeling of wanting to excoriate the pisher who scrawled such offensive words overcame me, to remind the little shit of the book burnings that lit Germany in the 1930s, and then, in the kind of psychological jiu-jitsu that arrives with age, the irony of having come to embody the parental position was duly noted. Would I have freaked out if I had discovered my son had done the same?
It was difficult to fathom why there were several multivolume collections of humor among Dad's books. My father embodied many qualities when I was young: He was loving, forthright, strong, decisive, and occasionally loud (he yelled once or twice). You will notice that funny is not on the list. Perhaps the multivolume humor anthologies — the S.J. Perelman, the works of Catskills humorist Sam Levenson — were, like the Aristotle and Plato, aspirational. It is difficult to imagine my father as a laugher when he was a young man. His adult life as a hard-charging businessman didn't leave much time for hilarity, and I don't recall him laughing much when I was a kid. But judging from his library, it appears as if he wanted to, and a sly sense of humor did reveal itself later in our lives. The Perelman volumes went into the California box.
Books on marketing proliferated, many from the Mad Men era, which was in many ways his apotheosis. And next to them a worn paperback of Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals, so recently a cudgel with which the Republican candidates were trying to beat President Obama. The business books were all placed in the donation pile, the Alinsky set aside. A first edition of an obscure Graham Greene novel, A Burnt-Out Case, was a major find, but even though my father had aspired to write fiction when he served in the Army during World War II (we encountered several early efforts as we sorted through his papers), there were not a lot of old novels. There were, however, a great many newer editions of old ones that he had purchased 20 years earlier via mail order through something called the Franklin Library. With their gold-lettered leather bindings they had the look of set dressing one would see on a Broadway stage in a production of The Winslow Boy. In his Bronx childhood, our essentially fatherless father had somehow learned to play tennis and ride horses. Like Gatsby, he had sprung from his platonic conception of himself, and that image required shelves lined with leather volumes. As Drew slipped a copy of The Sun Also Rises into his stack, he remarked that it was as if Dad was filling in an area he had missed when he was trying to get somewhere.
A wonderful oddity was Zero Mostel Reads A Book. My parents venerated Zero Mostel, owned several of his signed lithographs, and spoke reverently of having seen him in the American premiere of the Ionesco play Rhinoceros in the late fifties. This particular work was nothing more than a rice-paper-wrapped collection of photographs of, yes, Zero Mostel reading a book. I can tell you this: Zero Mostel has an awfully expressive face. This made me wonder how many libraries contain copies of both Zero Mostel Reads A Book and Mein Kampf.
There were books that whispered — from a great distance, their voices barely audible — the quintessence of long gone pop culture eras. Passages by Gail Sheehy and Running by Jim Fixx. A beat-up copy of All The President's Men. These were titles that were on everyone's lips, books that held the light long enough, and died off early enough, to call forth an entire epoch when their jackets are glimpsed. Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, anyone? A one-way ticket to Donationville.
And the plays! My parents were great theatergoers, and although published plays were not represented heavily in the library, the few there were unleashed a cascade of memories: my mother insisting I ask John Gielgud for an autograph (this must have been in 1968 when I had no idea who he was), or spending an entire day watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic staging of Nicholas Nickleby, or attending the premiere of Angels in America with both of my parents healthy and brimming with life. We donated an omnibus of modern classics, even No Exit by Sartre. I hesitated when I saw, eerily, Da by the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, a play about a man haunted by the demanding, irascible, loving ghost of his father. I saw the Broadway production starring Barnard Hughes with my parents in 1976. My father's copy is with me now.
Some of what was donated: all of the business books and anything having to do with golf. Was I really going to read Randolph Churchill's epic study of his father? The impulse that led him to write it was now more understandable than ever before, but the answer was probably "no." Good As Gold by Joseph Heller did not make the cut and neither did his Guillain-Barré memoir that I had mistakenly given my father as a gift. It was the only time he was incredulous at something I had presented him. He didn't do disease. Dad was a man of action and this is what interested him. He was born on March 4th, and his motto was "March forth."
A very short list of what I kept: Art books, the Collected Works of Ogden Nash, a Bellow novel, Inside The Third Reich by Albert Speer (unlike Hitler's opus, my brother assured me, Speer is generally considered to have turned out an excellent book). And my Sunday school texts. At exorcising sentiment, it turns out, I am a failure.
It took us two days to finish going through the library. Perhaps it could have been done at a brisker pace, but that would not have allowed unhurried time with our mother and father. We loaded two cars with the donations and headed for a library in a quiet Connecticut town near where my brother lives. There we filled two bins, each the size of a couple of bathtubs, with our cargo of paper and ink and memory. A woman came over to see what we were giving away. The inert pile of books was like an open coffin.
As we drove away I wondered about mein kampf. Not the book — that was in the garbage, garlanded with coffee grinds and orange peels — but the struggle, my own struggle, with my father's legacy, with what to keep and what to let go. We are like our parents in ways we cannot imagine, some charming and others less so. But we also, even as adults, sometimes consciously embody their qualities. As parents recede in death and memory becomes porous, certain resonant details will always linger: a favorite melody, the jaunty tilt of a hat, a library.
I am a writer.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Wading waist-deep into this hoard of history, smothered in the dust of centuries — he called it "genizaschmutz" — Schechter sifted for four weeks.
On the ghost of Graham Greene.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!